Anthrax: Symptoms and Treatment

Anthrax commonly affects livestock but can also infect humans through the handling of products that have come in contact with infected animals or been exposed to anthrax spores.

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What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious infection caused by the rod-shaped bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax, or a Bacillus anthracis infection, can spread through ingestion or inhalation of the bacterial spores. Although rare, the disease which commonly affects livestock, may infect people who come into contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products.

Most cases of anthrax among people have been a result of exposure to infected animals or their meat or hides. Some people may also contract the disease by handling spore-contaminated wool in enclosed factories.

Anthrax is not considered contagious. To contract anthrax, one must be in direct contact with anthrax spores. People who inhale anthrax spores do not exhale the spores. The disease does not spread from one person to another.

Symptoms of Anthrax

Anthrax occurs in three forms, each of which have a set of distinct symptoms.

Cutaneous Anthrax 

This type of anthrax infects the skin and is the most common form of the disease accounting for 95 percent of cases. The anthrax spores enter a person’s skin through direct contact with a cut, blister or abrasion on the skin and presents as a lump that develops into an open, painless sore with a black centre.

Gastrointestinal Anthrax 

This strain of disease develops by eating undercooked meat from an infected animal. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe, bloody diarrhoea.

Inhalation (Pulmonary) Anthrax

This type of anthrax infetion is contracted by inhaling anthrax spores. Initial signs include flu symptoms such as sore throat, fever, fatigue and body aches, which may later progress to high fever, breathing problems and shock.

Signs and symptoms associated with anthrax usually occur within seven days of exposure to the bacteria, but may take up to 40 days to appear in people with inhalation anthrax.

Risk Factors for Anthrax

People who are at a higher risk of contracting the disease include:
​Military personnel who are deployed to areas with high risk of exposure to anthrax
People who work with anthrax in a laboratory setting
People who handle potentially infected animal products in areas of the world where anthrax is a threat to livestock
People who work with imported animal hides or furs from areas with a high incidence of anthrax

Diagnosis of Anthrax

Tests to detect and diagnose anthrax include:
A skin biopsy where a small tissue sample is extracted from the lump in your skin to check for microscopic evidence of cutaneous anthrax
Sputum testing that involves adding respiratory secretions to a culture to test for presence of anthrax bacteria
Blood tests to check for the presence of anthrax bacteria
Chest X-rays or computerised tomography (CT) scans may be conducted to help diagnose inhalation anthrax, which often has a very characteristic appearance on the chest X-ray image
Endoscopy and stool samples can be used to diagnose intestinal anthrax. Stool samples can be tested for the presence of anthrax bacteria

Treatment of Anthrax

Antibiotics will be prescribed for the treatment of all three forms of anthrax. Ciprofloxacin, doxycycline and penicillin are approved treatments in adults and children, and will be prescribed for an extensive period. Be sure to see a doctor immediately if you are experiencing symptoms associated with the disease. Treatments are most effective when started as early as possible. 

Hospitalisation and treatment with intravenous antibiotics may be required for patients with inhalation anthrax.

Prevention of Anthrax

The most effective ways of preventing the contraction of anthrax is by avoiding contact with infected livestock and animal products and avoid eating meat that has not been properly slaughtered and cooked. Other preventive measures include careful handling of dead animals suspected of having the disease and providing sufficient protection to people processing hides, fur, wool or hair.

There is also a vaccine that could protect you from anthrax. However, it is not available to the public and is only reserved for:
​Military personnel who are deployed to areas with high risk of exposure to anthrax
People who work with anthrax in a laboratory setting
People who handle potentially infected animal products in areas of the world where anthrax is a threat to livestock
People who work with imported animal hides or furs from areas with a high incidence of anthrax

The anthrax vaccine is not recommended for children, pregnant women, or older adults.

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Anthrax: Symptoms and Treatment

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